From criminalization to integration in the UK | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 06.08.2012
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From criminalization to integration in the UK

In 1967, male homosexuality in the UK was partially decriminalized by the Sexual Offences Act. DW analyzes some of the major changes that have given gay people greater recognition.

From left to right,Eric, Michael, unidentified friend and Michael in London in early 70s.

From left to right,Eric, Michael, unidentified friend and Michael in London in the early 70s.

Ken is a 73-year-old gay man. He is retired and lives ten minutes away from Brighton in southern England. Today, he can speak freely about his sexuality, but that's not how things were in his younger days when homosexual relations between men was illegal in Britain.

"I was gonna get lost in the big city because I couldn't cope with trying to be normal in this small village," Ken told DW.

Ken moved to London in 1959. Like others before him, he arrived with no job, accommodation, or acquaintances. He met his lifelong friends, Eric and Michael, when the two advertised for a room.

"Ken was a country boy who didn't know a lot about London life ... He thought it was nice to meet people of his own kind," Eric said.

Ken and his friends went on to share a flat in Catford, in East London.

Not the only one

Eric (Standing) with Michael and Ken

Eric (Standing) with Michael and Ken.

To unsuspecting neighbors, the three friends were just like other young people in London who shared accommodation.

"You could live in London and be yourself - nobody took an interest in you," Michael said.

But that did not change reality. The names of men who were were caught by police were published by local, and sometimes national, newspapers.

As a result, underground gay bars, pubs and clubs sprung up, creating opportunities - and dangers.

"Now some of the people were really rough - they were not gay, they were there to rob you," Michael said.

Anti-homosexuality laws increased criminality

Russ, a friend of the three flatmates, was assaulted by another man, but he did not report the crime out of a fear that he would be outed. Other men were blackmailed.

World War II codebreaker Alan Turing's sexuality was revealed when he reported a crime by a man who had robbed him. During the investigation, the police discovered that the two had a sexual relationship, so both men were convicted for gross indecency.

Turing was told to choose between a prison sentence or chemical castration. He committed suicide - the year that the Parliamentary Committee on Homosexual Offences and Prostitution was set up.

The Wolfenden Report

In September 1957, the committee released their findings in the Wolfenden Report.

"It is not (...) the function of the law to intervene in the private lives of citizens or to seek to enforce any particular pattern of behaviour," the report read.

British mathematician, cryptographer, and one of the key inventors of the modern computer.

Alan Turing would have turned 100 this year.

This was controversial, not only because of the era in which it was published, but because it came just a year after the British government had consolidated laws against homosexuality in 1956.

"They proposed a view which was wholly new about homosexuality," said Paul Johnson of York University.

Johnson believes that the Wolfenden Report was instrumental in shaping the 1967 Sexual Offences Act, which led to the decriminalization of homosexuality for men aged over 21.

Partial decriminalization

For Ken, Eric and Michael, the change in the law meant that they no longer had to live in fear.

But policing went up, with more men being arrested for offences involving men younger than 21, Johnson said.

And public areas like parks, which had once been a meeting place for some gay men, were re-designed to reduce the opportunities for cruising by increasing lighting and cutting down trees.

Homosexuality remained a crime in other parts of the UK. Scotland only decriminalized private homosexual acts in 1980. And Northern Ireland followed suit in 1982, following a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights in a case brought forward by gay activist Jeff Dudgeon. The court ruled that the 19th century law criminalizing homosexuality violated the European Convention on Human Rights. The last part of the UK to implement a similar law was the Isle of Man, which did so in 1992.

The final hurdle

Legislation related to homosexuality has undergone many changes in the last decades. And it was not until 2000 that the age of consent was reduced to 16, the same as for heterosexual couples.

Despite the introduction of civil partnerships in the UK in 2005, many believe that equality is yet to be attained for homosexuals and heterosexuals.

"Marriage is what many people would regard as the last big issue," Johnson said.

Last year, the current UK government said that it would introduce gay marriage before the country's next general elections in 2015.

If that happens, there's a good chance that Ken, Eric and Michael would have lived through an era in which homosexuals went from being considered criminals to being an integral part of society, with the same rights as heterosexuals.

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